Kings and Crustaceans

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The great Polish critic Jan Kott wrote that "King Lear gives one the impression of a high mountain that everyone admires, yet no one particularly wants to climb." Indeed, for hundreds of years after Shakespeare's tragedy was written, no one did perform it. Bastardized versions of the play that cut characters and tacked on happy endings were often staged; but it wasn't until the 19th century, over 200 years after Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of King Lear that it could be seen as a tragedy.

Lear is staged more frequently these days, though it remains a treacherous endeavor. Harold Bloom's many visits to see the play performed have led him to believe it should be read instead of staged. In the next 12 months, however, actors such as Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline and even Stacy Keach will try on Lear's crown in revivals in England, New York and Chicago. Undaunted, a small theater in Los Angeles is currently presenting an ambitious version of Lear with an eclectic cast of recognizable faces from film and television screens.


Here, the doomed king is played by Robert Mandan, an actor best known for his work on TV shows like Soap and Three's a Crowd. Mandan has aged with elegance--and with a crisp white goatee, he looks like a man about to enjoy his retirement. His line readings are also crisp, but after the first scene his interaction with the other actors begins to fade away.

Mandan seems to be performing a solo show of monologues from Lear, instead of a full production. This hampers many of the actors in this revival--an effect which is exacerbated by the minimal staging which gives the performers nothing to interact with.

Director Patsy Rodenburg also employs a traverse stage--which was likely the way Lear was seen originally back in 1606--but at the small Electric Lodge in Venice, it too often gives the proceedings the unwanted feel of watching the back-and-forth of a tennis match. What's most tragic about this Lear is that it could have worked. Rodenburg has a firm grasp of the play--her focus on the character of Edgar is interesting and well supported in the text. Plus, she's inspired a talented, professional cast to take on this rigorous project. Not every actor succeeds. Patrick Muldoon painfully performs Edmund as a sort of effeminate Don Corleone, but most give worthy efforts--and Diane Venora is entirely riveting in the small but essential role of the fool.

If the Venice Lear shows a production unable to conquer a play's treacherous heights; across town, the Blank Theater is offering a molehill of a play that stands tall thanks to its first-rate staging. Kira Obolensky picked a great subject for her 1999 play Lobster Alice, a surreal comedy that takes place during Salvador Dali's brief tenure working for Walt Disney in the 1940's. The 90-minute play is amiable enough; but besides a quirky love story--not involving Monsieur Dali (portrayed by ER's Noah Wyle)--a sober look at the text reveals little beyond the amusing crustacean-out-of-water set-up.

A lackluster production of Lobster Alice would probably make your watch melt; but at the Blank, time flies thanks to Daniel Henning's taught direction and a truly radiant performance by Dorie Barton. Barton plays the titular Alice, a Disney D-Girl from the days when the "D" in Development was synonymous with "delicate" instead of "diabolical." Alice is lusted after by her supervisor, the repressed Finch (played by Buffy vet Nicholas Brendon) and urged to indulge her curiosity in the interesting aspects of life by the famous painter, who she calls "Mr. Dull-lee."

Alice blossoms under the artist's influence, which allows Barton to hint that Alice's own desires are even more bizarre than Dali's. Barton masterfully balances the character between "girl-next-door" and "wild-child," elevating the passions of a simple secretary into a studio-era Salome.

Lobster Alice runs through this Sunday at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood; King Lear through Sunday at the Electric Lodge in Venice.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.